Feb.5, 2015 | By Simon

Although 3D printing has lent itself to a variety of non-traditional applications, aiding in the insulation of a space freezer is probably one of the most rare applications...at least when looking beyond gravity.  

Solid Concepts, a 3D printing company owned by Stratasys, has recently used their Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing to aid in the production of a liner for a freezer to be sent to the International Space Station.

Also known as Polar, the freezer was developed by engineers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering (CBSE) and is set to remain at a temperature of -80⁰C while it transports experiments for processing to the International Space Station in accordance with NASA.  Although Polar was designed to be able to transport the experiments, NASA ultimately plans on keeping it aboard the International Space Station for longer durations of time.  Currently, there are three existing Polar freezers on board the International Space Station with the plan to ultimately have a total of 17 in the near future.  The biggest hurdle for NASA has been in utilizing the limited amount of space that the freezers can hold - and for that they looked into 3D printing as an option for developing a solution.    

While the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering began as bio protein growth engineering facility, the center evolved into designing and building various storage and temperature control units to house their proteins.  Ultimately, this led them to create a series of freezing units and incubators that were capable of reaching ultra-freezing temperatures.

In partnership with NASA, the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering team took on the design challenge of re-engineering the interior of the Polar freezer to make the most of the interior space for space transport.  Previously, the team experimented with making freezer parts using more traditional fabrication methods including flat machined pieces and thermoforming, however these brought about problems due to inefficient final products.  

Previously, the UAB Center for Biophysical Sciences & Engineering team had used Fused Deposition Modeling to create the ductwork for the Polar, so exploring additive manufacturing solutions came naturally for figuring out an interior design solution...particularly when combined with the use of ULTEM, a high-performance thermoplastic.

“At first, we continued the line of thinking similar to thermoforming, in which many pieces would be printed and joined together,” said Daniel Sealy, a mechanical engineer who worked on the project.  

“But after some research, we realized there were printers with a large enough printing volume that the entire shell could be printed as a single piece. This led us to where we are now. We had to go through a lot of learning about how to design for 3D printing and what types of geometry worked well, but it seems to be working great.”

After deciding on their final design direction, the team 3D printed the interior shell on a print bed that measured in at 36” x 24” x 36”.  To ensure that the material could withstand the constant frigid cold temperature, Sealy and team combined ULTEM 9085 with traditional filament.   

While it was important to use high performance plastic for temperature-related purposes, the structural needs of the material were not as important due to the object’s near-entire lifespan residing within the freezer.  However, the team did complete structural bend and freezing tests.   

“We dropped it from certain heights, bent it - generally made sure it wouldn’t shatter, chip or break,” said Sealy.

“Once the first unit was built, it also had to undergo vibration testing on a shake table that simulated what it would see during launches to verify that the entire design didn’t have any issues, and the Ultem performed well with no issues in that testing.”

The final 3D printed freezer insert design will be used to store biological samples including blood, urine and cells to study the effects of zero gravity on human cells over time.  



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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